What’s the worst trend in gaming?
I don’t know. But the most inexplicable trend is the game that doesn’t want you to play it.
You are led by nose down a path, having scripted experiences. Every choice has been made for you in advance. Stray from the path and you’re corralled back in by invisible walls or flashing “RETURN TO THE BATTLEFIELD” messages. Cutscenes are immensely long: you spend half the game with your inputs disabled.
Any “interactivity” is inconsequential: you can choose from two paths in the road, but both lead to the same destination. You can choose from two options in an NPC dialog tree, but the conversation ends the same way every time.
…Doesn’t this defeat the whole purpose of a videogame? Being able to explore and interact and express agency? Games lose a lot when they’re reduced to narratives where the player’s “actions” are just fancy ways of turning the page.
This is not a “games were better in my day!” rant. Actually, the worst instances of these sorts of non-games were (aside from obvious “interactive movie” stuff where gameplay isn’t the point) the much-mythologized old-school adventure games of the 80s and 90s.
Remember those? Remember how, in the mid 90s, everyone stopped playing them?
“The death of adventure games” was a popular brief in the late 90s: Journalists filled many column inches with opinions on why adventure games suddenly weren’t selling, and why the old guard of developers (Sierra/LucasArts/Trilobyte) were either shifting focus or filing for bankruptcy.
Usually, an outside factor is blamed. Adventure gamers love Lost Cause myths where their beautiful, pure adventures were snatched away by Myst and Doom and snot-nosed kids. Nobody wants to admit that the rot started from within.
The truth is that most adventure games (aside from a short list of classics) were very bad, full of illogical puzzles, mazes, pixel hunts, fetch quests, and arbitrary deaths. Here’s the average puzzle in an 80s text adventure:
You are starving! You find a HAM SANDWICH and a TURKEY SANDWICH. What do you do? >EAT HAM SANDWICH. Bad luck! The HAM SANDWICH was poisoned! You are dead! Should have gone with the turkey, dumbfuck!
If that sounds like a strawman, you’ve never played a classic adventure game. Just because I love you, here’s a real example from Westwood’s critically-acclaimed The Legend of Kyrandia, which sold a quarter of a million copies by 1996.
Scenario: “You are standing outside a house, looking down into a lake. You see a pair of eyes in the water. If you approach the water’s edge to get a better look, a huge monster rises from the water, snatches you with its tongue, and reels you into its mouth. Crunch.”
Just terrible. A whole Full Sail University class could be taught about this particular puzzle, and how it encapsulates everything not to do when designing a game.
The player isn’t warned of danger, cannot escape, and instantly dies. There’s no skill involved in survival: you just have to know not to follow the eyes. And since you can’t anticipate the next death trap (which there are a lot of), you end up creeping around Kyrandia like a scared mouse, hoping you don’t step on the wrong pixel and cause an asshole developer to slam the “INSTANT, UNAVOIDABLE DEATH” button again.
The Legend of Kyrandia actively penalizes you for playing it. Exploring? Taking risks? That’s not in the plan. Stick to the main path, friendo, and do what the game wants you to do.
This design approach is great from the developer’s point of view. You spend less time designing art assets and playtesting puzzles. Your games ship sooner, and have fewer bugs. Open-world games with a lot of options quickly turn into a garden of forking paths. But in the long run, you get a constrained experience.
It’s interesting that the big genre shifts of the past few years have included open-world exploration games like Minecraft, and battle royales like Fortnite and Apex Legends. These are games where every experience is different. It’s not a surprise, in hindsight. Players, by definition, want to play. They don’t want to be conscripted characters in someone else’s story, and that’s exactly what many major games are.
I’ve long felt that the “are videogames art?” debate elides the obvious point that the “art” of videogames is usually just cinema, at best. Playing a Triple-A game is largely indistinguishable from watching a movie. The strongest claim games can make to being an art form are titles like Cosmology of Kyoto and Rez…
…obscure, nice products that nobody’s heard of.